Someday I’d like to write a book.
Having spent most of my adult life as a research scientist affiliated with Harvard University, I like to break down goals into doable steps and analyze the process needed to achieve a certain result. While the publishing process is more art than science, here are some basic steps you will need to take to move from dreaming about writing a book to holding the finished product in your hands.
What’s the big idea?
Your nonfiction book of tens of thousands of words starts with one sentence that captures the main idea, or theme, of your book. Ernest Hemingway talked about writing one true sentence, and this goal is your first task. While this sentence may never appear in the book itself, you will need it in the book proposal your literary agent will send to publishers. Crystallizing the big idea of your book also will help you write a working title.
For my first book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2014), I started the process by writing down a list of words and short phrases that captured the essence of my message. A cluster of these words became the working title. Once I had a working title, I was ready to write the outline for the book.
Who is the audience?
Books are for readers, not the writers. Publishers want books to sell, not collect dust on bookstore shelves. Accordingly, once you have your big idea, you need to determine who will desire to read the book. These readers are your audience. Perhaps your book is for a general audience, and you hope everyone will read it. However, publishers will require that you define your audience more clearly.
Is there an age group more likely to read your book? Will the book appeal to certain specialists or professionals, like pastors or counselors? What interests do your potential readers have that would make them likely to buy your book? Will your readers use the book in a group setting such as a Bible study or classroom, or will they tuck it into a carry-on bag for entertainment on an airplane ride or while soaking up the sun on a distant beach?
Think in terms of primary, secondary, and tertiary audiences. These categories will help you define who is most likely to buy the book as well as the wider audiences that may express interest. You will need to describe your audience in your nonfiction book proposal. Knowing your audience also will shape your writing style for the book. For example, a book for teens will use a different vocabulary than a book for seminary professors. A book useful for a specialist may need to include references and an index, while a book used in a church setting may benefit from a discussion guide.
Why write this book?
The journey from idea to bookstore usually measures in years not months, so knowing why you are writing this book will fuel your motivation early in the morning or late at night as you face publication deadlines. The answer to this question will come in handy when family members and friends wonder why you are spending your free time in your office instead of having fun anywhere else.
Understanding what need your book will meet in the marketplace of ideas will provide direction as you decide what material you need to cover in your chapters and what falls outside the scope of this book. Ultimately, focusing on the purpose for writing this book will keep you connected to your calling as an author and the original dream that has moved from someday to today.